Chris Archer Produces a Masterpiece

Amid the ever-increasing dominance of pitching this season, Chris Archer has been a singular figure among the leaderboard of best pitchers during 2015: he’s not only a newcomer to the best handful of starters that populate baseball, but he’s also gotten to where he currently is in a rather unique way. In late April, I noticed that Archer was now throwing his slider almost 40% of the time and getting incredible results from it; in May, Carson noted that Archer was in a select group that blended an elite ground-ball rate with an elite strikeout rate; and, in early June, Dave wrote that Archer’s slider was now being thrown much harder, at upwards of 90 mph, making it an almost totally unfair pitch.

Archer has truly found himself as an ace this season, and last night, he turned in the best performance of his young career.

Unsurprisingly, the Rays’ right-hander pitched his complete game, one hit, one walk, 11 strikeout, 98-pitch performance in the method he has come to rely on this season: an overpowering fastball coupled almost exclusively with an unfair slider. Archer threw a Maddux, and he did so in historic fashion, compiling a Bill James game score of 95 along the way. The only other pitchers to throw a complete game with under 100 pitches and a game score of at least 95? I’ll let our friend Kazuto answer that:

That’s a lot of perfect games and one no-hitter on that very short list, which tells us just how good Archer was last night. He was this close, in fact, to a no-no:

The changeup was just a little further up in the zone than Archer probably wanted (even though he got a ground ball), but at least it was of the clean-hit variety. There will be the inevitable “but what if the shift wasn’t on,” cries out there, but let’s operate like this: give Colby Rasmus a little credit for hitting one of the few semi-hittable pitches of the night, and let’s focus on what made this game so special.

There’s a lot to focus on, after all. First, let’s look at Archer’s pitch breakdown — comparing his 2015 season pitch usage to last night’s start:

Chris Archer Pitch Usage
Four-Seam FB% Two-Seam FB% Slider% Changeup%
Season 43.1% 12.2% 39.3% 5.4%
8/20 41.8% 2.0% 42.8% 13.2%

He obviously leaned a little more toward the changeup in this outing over the two-seam fastball, but it’s the bread and butter approach that we should focus on. Archer doesn’t just survive on two pitches: he laughs in the face of those who say major-league aces need three pitches. His slider is that good, and he was reminding us last night why some in baseball view it as the single best pitch in the game.

So let’s talk about that slider for a moment, because the numbers associated with it during this start are kind of absurd. Look at his some of the peripheral stats behind the slider leading up to this start compared to last night (I’ve included both fouls and balls in play in Strike%):

Chris Archer Slider Stats
Strike% In-Zone% Whiffs/Swing% GB%
Season 71.2% 42.7% 39.7% 52.8%
8/20 78.6% 35.7% 50.0% 83.0%
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball/Baseball Savant

Part of the reason for the overwhelming improvement Archer has had this season with his slider is due to him learning how to throw it for strikes more often. Yesterday, he didn’t need to throw it in the zone as often — whether because his slider was extra nasty or because of the free-swinging ways of the Houston Astros — but he got better results from it. His whiff rate for the season is elite, but last night half of the swings against his sliders didn’t make contact with the ball. For the ones that did, and were somehow able to be put in play, all but one of them was on the ground (Carlos Correa hit a soft liner to second in the fourth inning).

And, unsurprisingly, the majority of Archer’s strikeouts last night came on the slider: seven out of 11. Dave talked about how Archer’s slider to left-handers is now basically a power curveball, most often diving down-and-in on lefties for swinging strikeouts. That was on full display last night, as the Rays right-hander used that strategy to victimize the Houston lefties.

Here’s Marwin Gonzalez in the first inning:

Then a backdoor slider to Luis Valbuena in the third:

Then back to the power curve down-and-in to get Jason Castro in the sixth:

He employed a tried and true strategy against vulnerable right-handers with his slider as well, throwing it for strikes early in counts before getting chases down and out of the zone for strikeouts on guys who are known to go after those pitches. He struck out Jose Altuve and Evan Gattis twice each, once with a two-strike slider in the zone and once with one outside of it. This full-count called strike three to Gattis to end the second inning was particularly nasty:

Then there was the four-seam fastball, which Archer dialed up to 98 mph at times while spotting on the corners.

He got Correa looking in the first, at 96 mph:

And Castro again off the plate inside to end the third, at 97 mph:

Finally, he got Valbuena again on a challenge fastball — at 98 mph — to end the eighth:

There’s another reason for Archer’s dominance with just two pitches besides the incredible speed with which he throws his slider. Let’s look at his release point for his fastballs, sliders, and changeups from last night, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:

Archer_August_Release

This is plotted by inning, so if Archer threw one of these three types of pitches during an inning last night, it gets its own dot. That means there are 18 dots here for just the fastballs and sliders, as Archer threw both of those pitches in every inning. This, obviously, doesn’t look like a plot of at least 18 dots, and that’s the point: batters are seeing fastballs and sliders at the same release point. If we look back through the past few seasons, something becomes clear: Archer has become more consistent in maintaining the release points of his fastballs and sliders as the seasons have passed, culminating in the sort of tunneling you see above.

The efficiency numbers for last night’s start also speak for themselves: 98 total pitches; more than 12 pitches in an inning only once (17, in the first); 64% first-pitch strikes; only four three-ball counts. Because Archer’s slider was so nasty (it actually had an average of a half inch more horizontal movement last night compared to his average slider this year), hitters needed to guard against it, making themselves vulnerable to his overpowering fastball.

When hitters sat fastball, they often got the slider instead, and the syncing of release points between the two pitches meant that they were more or less guessing what was coming. For those hitters who didn’t strike out, Archer was inducing 56% ground balls and 33% infield flies, using his slider down and fastball up to keep them from squaring anything up.

Archer has been working up to this start for the entire season. We’ve seen the markers since April: increased slider usage, velocity, and ground ball ability. Last night, on the back of an approach that has vaulted him into the very elite of starting pitchers in baseball, we saw him put everything together — and this might not be the last time we discuss this sort of start from him.

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Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.

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Jason Lukehart
Guest

This was the second Maddux of Archer’s career, and only the sixth in Rays history. James Shields has all four of the other ones.